FIRE criticizes Cal Poly investigation into Native American-themed party


Dean of Students Jean DeCosta launched an investigation into the party after receiving complaints from neighbors and Native American faculty, Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey said. The students or organizations involved with the party could be found responsible of harassment or intimidation, he added.

Sean McMinn

Cal Poly’s investigation into an “offensive” fraternity-sorority party is now facing criticism from the legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Joe Cohn, who works at FIRE’s headquarters in Philadelphia, said Thursday that Cal Poly’s investigation is unconstitutional based on the information the university has made public so far. The theme of the party in question — “Colonial Bros and Nava-hos” — is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Cohn said.

“University officials issued their statement that there’s no place for events like these in the Cal Poly community,” said Cohn, who was on campus to speak at a Cal Poly College Republicans club event earlier this month. “That claim is just flatly and universally wrong.”

The claim Cohn referenced is from a campuswide email President Jeffrey Armstrong and Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey sent Monday. In it, they decried the party for being “offensive” to Native Americans and women.

Dean of Students Jean DeCosta launched an investigation into the party after receiving complaints from neighbors and Native American faculty, Humphrey said. The students or organizations involved with the party could be found responsible of harassment or intimidation, he added.

But case law on the subject is clear that themed parties are not considered harassment, Cohn said. Even launching an investigation into such a party, he said, is against the law.

“The investigation in itself kills speech,” he said. “If anyone who made a statement against Obamacare was subject to an investigation, might that silence speech against Obamacare?”

University counsel Carlos Cordova declined to comment on Cohn’s remarks.

The U.S. Supreme Court defines university harassment as behavior “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities,” according to FIRE’s website.

A misguided party theme does not meet that definition on its own, Cohn said.

“Schools try all the time to protect students from offensive speech, and we confront them when they do,” Cohn said. “And it’s really problematic. And how they play out largely depends on how much the students who are subjected to it want to fight it.”

Cohn said FIRE would review the Cal Poly case more closely if a student in one of the organizations under investigation brought a complaint to him.

FIRE’s legal services are free to students.

In contrast to Cohn’s criticism of the investigation, he applauded Cal Poly’s choice to have an open forum discussing racism and sexism Friday.

“The forum is launching a discussion about these issues, and it’s bringing these issues to the forefront instead of letting them fester,” he said. “I think that’s the silver lining with it. But I think it’s really unfortunate it’s coming with the very real threat of censorship.”

Safer Coordinator Christina Kaviani said the goal of Friday’s forum was to give students who are angry or have negative feelings a place to voice them. The event aims to bring people together to come to a common resolution that this type of behavior is wrong and shouldn’t happen again, she said.

Most themes have a sexist component to them, and this theme was racist as well, Kaviani said.

“It’s always oppressive to women when there are themed parties with ‘hoes,’ and it is really demeaning to women,” she said. “The themes usually have the man in the more powerful position, and that’s already creating a problem.”

Kaviani believes this problem should be treated with a punitive and educational response. Students should be taught this behavior is not acceptable, she said, and Cal Poly should adopt policies to make sure similar parties don’t happen again.

Greek organizations have the spotlight on them and people can use it for good, she said.

“I was pretty surprised because I do know a lot of members in the greek system who are fantastic people, and I don’t think it’s a representation of the greeks in general, I think it’s a representation of not thinking something through,” she said.

Sara Natividad contributed to this report.